The magic of brown butter

Simple to make, exciting to taste

click to enlarge The magic of brown butter
Photos by Ashley Meyer
Tiny dark specks of brown butter flavor both the batter and toothsome streusel and pumpkin seed topping in these autumn spiced muffins.

Brown butter is a magical thing. It's devastatingly simple to make and transforms everything from cookies to chicken to boxed macaroni and cheese. It's often thought of as a classic French ingredient, and indeed the late Julia Child, who helped to make French cooking accessible to American home cooks, was known for her love of beautifully browned butter. In her memoir, My Life in France, she recalls the first meal she had upon entering the country: Dover sole, served whole and "perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce," and declared it "the most exciting meal of my life." Widespread as it is in Gallic cuisine, clarified brown butter, or ghee, is also a staple in Indian cooking. Preparing ghee is an ancient technique that makes perishable butter shelf-stable and some believe it's more healthful than regular butter. Used as a general cooking fat, melted ghee is often served at the table as well to be drizzled over rice and chapatis (homemade whole wheat flatbread).

Browned butter is simple to make, but it does require attention and a bit of patience, especially if you're making a large amount. Use a heavy-bottomed pan, ideally one with shorter sides like a skillet rather than a deep pot to help facilitate evaporation. Essentially you want to slowly cook the butter until the water content of the butter has bubbled away which then will allow the milk solids to caramelize. A lighter pan is preferable as it will allow you to more easily track the progress of the browning butter as it darkens. Be sure to have handy a heatproof spatula or spoon because it will get quite hot, and be prepared for the next step in your recipe when the butter is finished. The key to deeply flavored brown butter is to let the solid brown specks to get golden brown without burning them. When it is the perfect color of brown you need to act quickly and either transfer the butter to a heatproof container to cool (Metal is best. Tempered glass like Pyrex shouldn't break but it happens.) or be ready to add your other ingredients to the pan to cool things down and keep the butter from scorching. Chefs call this mis en place, meaning everything in its place. It's an important principle in good cooking.

Cut the butter into cubes and melt them in a pan over medium high heat, stirring occasionally. Once the butter has melted it will begin to sputter and pop as the water evaporates. Creamy foam will collect at the top, and then larger bubbles will form and push the foam away toward the sides of the pan. Use your heatproof spatula throughout this process to help scrape up the solids and let them brown evenly. Once the butter has stopped popping and sputtering, it will foam up again, and you should begin to see dark specks bubbling up from the bottom of the pan. At this point it's up to you when it's done. Browned butter can range from pale golden to deep mahogany, but it's critical to pull it before the brown specks turn black and the pan starts smoking.

Once the butter is done you can transfer it to another container to cool, or you can continue on with your recipe, taking advantage of the super hot fat to sear other ingredients, like chopped veggies or protein. My husband and I often enjoy date night at home and seared scallops in brown butter are one of our favorite indulgences. After a quick flash in a pan with sizzling brown butter, scallops require nothing more than a squeeze of lemon and shower of chopped parsley to finish. Illinois is one of the top winter squash producers in the nation, and there is arguably no better accompaniment to the myriad of varieties available on farm stands than browned butter and sage. And when it comes to autumn baking, nothing pairs better with crisp apples, juicy pears and warm spices than the flavor of nutty brown butter.

Brown Butter Pumpkin Muffins

For muffin batter:
1 cup butter (two sticks), divided
2 cups flour (white, whole wheat or gluten-free flours all work well)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt (1 teaspoon regular salt)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cardamom or nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger, or use 1 teaspoon ground ginger
15 oz can pumpkin purée (not pumpkin pie filling)
3 large eggs
1 ½ cup brown sugar
½ cup toasted pepitas or chopped nuts (optional)
For streusel topping
Remaining butter from above
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup brown sugar
A pinch of salt
½ cup pepitas or chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Brown the butter in a pan over medium heat and set aside. Line muffin tins with papers or spray with cooking spray, This recipe makes 18 standard-size or 12 jumbo muffins.

In a medium bowl whisk together flour, baking powder and soda, salt and dry spices. In a mixing bowl combine the grated ginger, pumpkin, eggs and brown sugar and whisk together until smooth. Gently fold in dry ingredients followed by half of the brown butter (1/2 cup) and pepitas or nuts, if using. Divide the batter among the prepared pans.

Now make the streusel. Combine the dry ingredients with the remaining browned butter and mix well to create a crumbly mixture. Liberally sprinkle the streusel over the top of the muffin batter, patting it down very lightly. Bake for 20-25 minutes, depending on muffin size.

Ashley Meyer is a Springfield native who encourages everyone to keep buying local this fall. There is still loads of beautiful produce available at the Old Capitol Farmers Market through the end of October, and local farmstands like Suttill's Garden, Jefferies Orchard and the Apple Barn are open through Thanksgiving.